Fifty Years Later, A Look Back: Part One — The Gathering Storm

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

On Friday night, April 12, 1968, the Jews of Washington sat down at their Seder tables to begin the holiday of Passover. But instead of the joy and happiness that the holiday usually brings, the mood was much different: There was fear, anger, and great despair. A cauldron of rage had boiled over Washington, D.C., and vast stretches of the supposedly riot-proof city lay in smoldering ruins. Though the entire city was affected, the pain would be deeply felt by the Jewish community, and the consequences of those terrible days would affect that community for decades to come.

Nothing would ever be the same as it was before that awful night in April 1968.

Now that 50 years have passed, many articles have been written about the riots themselves. But the story of what happened to the close-knit postwar Jewish community of the city in the wake of the riots — what happened in the years after the last fire burned out — now that story will be told, in this special five-part series “Fifty Years Later: A Look Back.”

The Gathering Storm

By the 1960s, it had become quite clear that the social order was changing. Previously disenfranchised people were demanding their rights, and there was great anger in the air. Unlike most cities, Washington had a substantial multi-racial middle class, for many people of all races had good and stable jobs with the Federal Government. On the surface, things seemed good; but underneath, there were pockets of deep poverty throughout the city. The notorious slums of Old Southwest were razed in the 1950s, yet the poverty was there, festering like an open wound.

Directly between two societies, white and black, stood the Jewish community. Not totally part of either group, they lived in the middle. Restricted from living in many parts of the city, barred from many jobs in the professional ranks, and limited by quotas from many colleges, they too felt the sting of prejudice and were represented far beyond their numbers in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

However, at the local level Jews had become the dominant merchant class, owning the majority of the city’s grocery and liquor stores, as well as the wholesale houses that supplied them. There were no restrictions against Jews in those industries, and many loved the idea of being in business for themselves, free of the bigotry that affected them in so many other areas. For the most part, they were leaders in the fair and decent treatment of the mainly African-American customer base that they served. They carried families on credit, hired local people to work in their stores, and strove to be a part of the community they served.

Despite their best efforts, the city was changing around them. For example, the city mikvah (ritual bath) was located on 14th street, in a once-thriving area. By the mid-1960’s it had become so dangerous to go there at night, that the local rabbinic authorities had to give women a heter (dispensation) to go during the day. Up the street was the old Danzansky Funeral Home. It became almost impossible to do taharas (ritual washing of the deceased in preparation for burial) at night. Shuls began to have trouble getting people to come to night services and other events. The old ways were disintegrating. As it has happened so many times in history, the Jews were the first ones to see the trouble coming, and the least equipped to do anything about it.

Large scale gatherings began to be marked by trouble. On Easter Monday, 1966, a race riot broke out at the recently integrated Glen Echo amusement park in Montgomery County, Maryland. The bomb was ticking, waiting for the spark to light the fuse.

And then, two years later, on a balmy night in April, came the spark, in the form of a bulletin from Memphis, Tennessee: Martin Luther King lay dead from an assassin’s bullet, and the old Washington lay dead with him.

NEXT TIME: “Fifty Years Later: A Look Back, Part Two The Merchants”

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By Larry Shor